On Friday, the Jammu and Kashmir police asked a local court to block all Facebook pages that had uploaded this image of 11 uniformed boys.  The picture was clicked over the last month, the authorities believe. The boy in the centre of the second row is 19-year-old Burhan Muzaffar Wani. He is the face of the new militancy movement in the Valley. As his popularity has grown over the last four years, solo pictures of Wani have spread rapidly across social media networks. The fact that he now stands with ten more men hints at a changed reality.

New stirrings of unrest first became visible in 2010, when the Valley was paralysed by youths pelting stones at members of the security forces. Since then, many have warned that the use of disproportionate force in the Valley would have dire consequences. This image would seem to indicate that those fears may be coming true.

Wani’s story is illustrative of the situation. Four years ago, when he was 15, Wani left home ten days ahead of his school exams to join the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group. His family said that Wani took the decision after he and his elder brother Khalid Muzaffar Wani were beaten up by the police in 2010. While running away from them, Burhan Wani vowed, “I will take revenge for this.”

A wanted man

Since then, Wani has become a Hizbul Mujahideen commander with a bounty of Rs one million on his head. The son of a high-school principal, he has been involved in several attacks on the forces. He has often managed to decamp with ammunition, police officials said. As a result, he has become an iconic figure among the region’s youth.

On April 13 this year, Burhan Wani’s brother Khalid was shot dead. The authorities claimed that the paramilitary forces killed Khalid, a talented cricketer, when he and three others went in a forest to meet Burhan Wani.

For last two years, militant groups have set a new policy for recruits: men who wish to join them have to steal a weapon from a member of the armed forces.  This has not deterred several youth from signing up, either after finishing their education at universities or colleges or dropping out. A police official said on condition of anonymity that between three dozen and four dozen youth have joined militant groups this year, most of them throwing in their lot with the Hizbul Mujahideen, largely in South Kashmir.

Focus on South Kashmir

Inspector General of Police (Kashmir) SJ Mujtaba Gillani agreed there has been a rise of in new recruitments into militancy. “Definitely there has been rise in local recruitment, largely since last year,” he said.  In South Kashmir, he said, members of the Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba are motivating more potential recruits.

“This release of a picture is a matter of concern for us but I won’t say it is alarming,” Gillani said. “Ultimately, they are not able to do anything concrete like action or attacks on the security forces. This picture is only to validate their presence.”

Last February, Indian army data accessed by the media showed that native, educated militants are now the mainstay of militant groups.  According to the data, at least 70 young Kashmiris joined the militants in 2014, of whom 14 had been killed by February 2015.

Until recently, the government had claimed that youth were joining militant groups due to a lack of opportunities in education or employment. But the profiles of these militants show they are educated and come from well-of families. Some of them were government employees.

The men in that picture include Naseer Ahmad Pandit, a police constable who had been assigned to be a personal security guard with the Minister for Public Works, Syed Altaf Bukhari. In March, he escaped with two AK-47 rifles. The police search for him came to halt after he was identified in this latest picture.

Despite this, the state police Crime Gazette 2014 claimed that by the end of 2014, the total number of active militants had fallen to the all-time low of 105. In 2010, the number of active militants was said to be 600. A human rights group called The Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society said that 347 militants had been killed in last four years. While 100 militants were killed in 2011, that figure fell to 99 in 2014. The group said that 271 members of the security forces had been killed between January 2011 and December 2014, while 192 civilians were killed in the different incidents of violence during the same period.

Personal experiences

Most of the 347 militants killed since 2010 have been youth. Their families explained that many of them had turned to violence after being insulted by the armed forces or witnessing unwarranted force being used against protestors. This was confirmed by a 14-page internal assessment report of army in 2014.  “A few youths had taken up arms against security forces in J&K because of inhuman treatment meted out by the Jammu and Kashmir Police and security forces to them/close relatives/family members,” said The Hindustan Times, quoting the document.

In the late 1980s, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front was the first group to train youth to become militants. It declared a ceasefire in 1994.  Since then, it has been pressing its demands through non-violent means. JKLF chairman Yasin Malik, who was among the first militants, has been warning the government about the rising discontent since 2008.

“Non-violent movement needed proper space so that the dissent voice could be expressed,” he said. “But such spaces are being continuously choked. Any non-violent protestors are being harassed and arrested – even their families face the same. Such response forces youth to gun again. I appeal international community and Indian civil society to pursue Indian state to give genuine space for non-violent protests.”

Last year as the leader of the Opposition, President of People’s Democratic Party, Mehbooba Mufti had blamed institutional injustice as being reason for rise in youth militancy. Referring to a militant’s killing in Tral where the his mother came on record saying her son was forced to pick up guns because of state atrocities, Mehbooba said, “I know all of us should be concerned about whether we aren’t pushing our youth on the path of militancy due to excesses.”

PDP general secretary Rafi Mir agrees that some government employees and educated youth are now joining militant groups. “To be fair and honest, the Jammu and Kashmir has some political issues,” he said. “Our government has said that we will address such issues between India and Pakistan. It will help to decrease the militancy. We have seen this for 25 years. I can’t deny the reports about rise in youth joining militancy but along with the government there are agencies and police that need to address this issue.”

Mir said the PDP would not allow the government or police to carry out repressive actions. The militants “are our own people we need to face them with love and affection”, he said.